It’s been a summer of historical anniversaries: the D-Day invasion, the start of World War I, and, coming up, Richard Nixon’s resignation as the 37th president of the United States in August 1974.
Nixon was definitely a complicated figure. He revolutionized foreign relations, set a foundation for modern environmental relations and even advanced women’s rights, by signing into law Title IX, points out journalist and author Cokie Roberts. But others see him as “tragically insecure” and “the most corrupt president” in U.S. history.
Certainly, my view of politics and American institutions were colored by revelations about Nixon’s “enemies list,” his role in covering up the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and his secret bombing of Cambodia (which destabilized that country to the extent that the genocidal Khmer Rouge took power).
In any event, Nixon was certainly known for his survival instincts. When push came to shove — a mountain evidence of illegal, unethical behavior cornered him into resigning — Nixon could respond with a certain political genius by giving an amazing speech. I’m talking about his famous and poetically spontaneous farewell speech to the White House staff before leaving Washington D.C. I came across it recently while watching a PBS American Experience documentary on Nixon’s life.
The unscripted and unrehearsed speech has been hailed as one of the most “candid and genuine moments” ever delivered by U.S. president. It’s pretty moving, and it definitely offers up words of wisdom for how any of us would face the slings and arrows of life. Here is an excerpt, in which he quotes another American president who overcame a tremendous sorrow.
I am not educated, but I do read books — and the T.R. quote was a pretty good one. Here is another one I found as I was reading, my last night in the White House, and this quote is about a young man. He was a young lawyer in New York. He had married a beautiful girl, and they had a lovely daughter, and then suddenly she died, and this is what he wrote. This was in his diary.
He said, “She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever — but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man.
And as I leave, let me say, that is an example I think all of us should remember. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.
It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.